Feature Article: Transdisciplinarity in Higher Education, Part 5

Russ Volckmann

Sustainability through Transdisciplinarity and Integrality: Institute for Sustainable Futures, the University of Technology, Sydney Australia

Russ Volckmann and Sue L.T.McGregor

Russ Volckmann

Sue L.T.McGregor

We have been exploring “academic” programs in transdisciplinarity for about one year. It may be a mistake to refer to them as “academic,” because one of the features of these programs is that they are designed to transcend and include academic disciplines, as well as the university and the world around it. One of the key elements of these programs has been the joining of individuals from many disciplines to address a challenge that transcends any one of the disciplines. Another element is that research and development activities involve the active participation of individuals from other institutions, businesses, and/or communities in discovering an approach to designing, intervening, and/or developing technology that attends to the challenge.

There has, in the last couple of decades, been an international movement to develop transdisciplinary approaches in higher education. This movement has been led by CIRET, the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (Le Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires) with physicist Basarab Nicolescu as president ( The purpose of this organization is

“…to develop research in a new scientific and cultural approach – the transdisciplinarity – whose aim is to lay bare the nature and characteristics of the flow of information circulating between the various branches of knowledge. The CIRET is a privilege[d] meeting-place for specialists from the different sciences and for those from other domains of activity, especially educators. The aim of our organization is fully expressed in our moral project.” (

This “moral project” has several tenets, including the sixth:

“Scientific knowledge, as a consequence of its own internal development, has arrived at a stage where it ought [to] reestablish an active dialogue with other forms of knowledge. Founded on a spirit of scientific rigour the activity of the International Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies and Research will encourage the establishment of a dynamic exchange between the exact sciences, the social sciences and art and tradition.


“While recognizing its principal role as the furthering of fundamental research, the International Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies and Research will keep an open interest in society. Special attention will be given to research into new methods of education aimed at surmounting the rupture between contemporary science and the outmoded images of the world. In the long term it is possible to envisage the creation of a “Transdisciplinary University”. (

Here we find several of the central features of the programs we have been examining. We have looked at major efforts using the transdisciplinary label in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Austria and in this article, Australia, in particular, the Institute for Sustainable Futures, the University of Technology, Sydney. In each of the five initiatives there has been:

  1. The breaking down of boundaries among academic disciplines to foster generative collaboration.
  2. The inclusion of multiple perspectives within the University and from the stakeholders of the research and development activity.

For the purposes of this article in the series, Russ interviewed Chris Riedy, PhD, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, the University of Technology, Sydney. He has more than fourteen years experience as a researcher, consultant, and author on sustainability policy with particular expertise in energy policy, climate change response, and social change initiatives. Recently, he led a major review of behavior change theory and practice that recommended a suite of policy measures for the Queensland Government to implement in order to meet its household greenhouse gas reduction targets. Other projects have included the development of a Climate Change Action Plan for the University of Technology, Sydney, the World Wide Views on Global Warming project to give Australian citizens a voice in international climate change negotiations, the Carbon Offset Watch project to provide consumers with independent advice on the voluntary carbon market and research on energy and transport subsidies in Australia for Greenpeace. Chris has made strong research contributions to the fields of integral theory, foresight, and sustainability science. He contributed to a special issue of Futures on Integral Futures (40, 2). His was voted one of the three most important futures works of 2008 by the Association of Professional Futurists. His doctoral research explored behavioral, systemic, psychological, cultural, and developmental perspectives on climate change response in Australia and proposed new participatory policy responses. (

The institute was established in 1997 with the mission to create change towards sustainable futures. Riedy commented, “That was quite visionary for an Australian University to have a focus on sustainability that early. We were certainly one of the first sustainability focused institutes in Australia. We managed to survive and become self-funding over the years, which we are quite proud of.” The Institute is doing work on social behavior change and organizational change to help organizations that are trying to wrestle with climate change to work out what they want to do. Also, they work with governments at various levels.

Riedy continued,

“Right from the start I think we had a real focus on transdisciplinary research and have recognized that you cannot grapple with something that is as complex and far reaching as sustainability without bringing together a lot of different kinds of thinking, a lot of different perspectives on what sustainability… So that’s been embedded in our work right from the start. It has deepened over time particularly through our post graduate programs. We don’t teach courses in the traditional university sense so we don’t do an undergraduate degree or even post graduate teaching degrees. We do have post graduate research degrees at the PhD and Masters levels.”

More about these Programs below.

Initially, they explored what transdisciplinary research is, what it means and how to do it in practice. That theoretical thinking phased out into a contract research where they put that kind of thinking into practice in very real contexts with real problems that clients were struggling with. Most of their work now is through contracts with governments, businesses, or NGOs. Currently, that has resulted in an AU$5 million budget.

About 80% of their financing is derived from contracts and grants. The University grants the other 20%. This ratio and source-balance demonstrates one of the key elements that is important to many transdisciplinary programs (not uniquely, however): funding by stakeholders other than traditional university sources. They have a staff of about fifty plus 20-25 graduate students at any given time. The number of students has increased dramatically in recent years as concerns for climate change and other environmental threats have grown.

In addition  to the focus on climate change, the Institute works on projects related to water, fish, and sea, and sustainable water uses. As an example, the Queensland government, one of the state governments in Australia, commissioned Riedy to look at how behavior-change programs could influence the reduction of household carbon footprints by a third by 2020 in Queensland. The term behavior change is a general term. It may involve efforts focused around giving information to consumers so that they can take action to reduce their carbon footprints.

An example of a behavior change program is one that uses an approach developed by David Gershon in the United States. His book, Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds–Be Part of the Global Warming Solution!, offers a way to reduce our carbon footprint through environmentally-friendly consumer choices. In this program researchers go out into the community and set up teams of maybe 6 – 10 people who are volunteers wanting to reduce their ecological impact. They get together and go through a program that’s facilitated by the government. They use Gershon’s light carbon diet workbook in a series of meetings and work out what they could do together to reduce their carbon footprint. A solid overview of the different kinds of approaches to guiding the community toward change and its impact was what the government was looking for. They were examining what had worked not just locally, but around the world.

The project came up with recommendations on government-supported community programs for sustainability. Some examples of the kinds of action that community members might take would be committing to use public transport or cycling to work instead of driving. It could be doing home composting of food waste, instead of throwing it out. Some of the groups were associated with boating clubs and have installed solar panels on the roofs of their clubhouses.

The Institute for Sustainable Futures draws on quite a number of disciplinary perspectives from architects to engineers to social scientists to the hard sciences working in ecosystem resilience and those of other areas. The selection of representatives of disciplines is based on the purposes and needs any given project. Riedy noted,

“In the behavior change project we were trying to bring together different perspectives on behavior change. I used Wilber’s AQAL model to guide that process. I was looking for perspectives coming from each of the four quadrants related to how you would go about trying to influence human behavior on climate change. We tried, for example, to examine the behavioral quadrant to use perspectives on behavior change and to identify target behaviors. Then we looked at the systems quadrant for approaches like behavior economics that try and nudge people’s behavior in different directions through the choices that they are presented with. We have brought in cultural change theories in the cultural quadrant and environmental psychology work in the intentional quadrant. What we were trying to do is bring those different perspectives to bear and see in the work that the Queensland government have been doing if they have been neglecting any of those areas and what new programs might emerge out of broadening their view.”

Generally, the involvement of stakeholders in the Institute’s programs has been at the implementation, rather than the research stage. On the other hand, there are projects with quite extensive involvement, such as a project involving the electricity industry and the development of intelligent grids in Australia. In projects such as these the Institute often plays an integrator role by trying to find ways to get the various stakeholders interested in talking across disciplines in order to achieve outcomes that beyond particular discipline areas.

In a project that they did a few years ago, a catchments management project focused on the major river system in Sydney they tried to extend beyond the institute and bring together researchers from different disciplines who had an interest in that area of catchments management. They spent a year talking together regularly while trying to develop some common language and to develop a common idea of what the problem was that they wanted to grapple with. They tried not to start with a focus on the problem but to bring the disciplines together to talk and understand what their different research interests were. They found it involved environmental scientists, ecologists, visual communications people in the school of design, engineers, and social scientists. Riedy observed that it was very difficult to develop a common language.

Often they were speaking very much from their disciplinary backgrounds. Terms that one person felt very comfortable with meant something completely different to those in another discipline. They spent a lot of time just sorting out what they were actually talking about. Riedy indicated that it was a very interesting process and quite resource intensive: “I think we got there. But we didn’t have sufficient funding to then go out and take what would have been the next step—involve the community in those discussions and start to understand what their research needs were.”

They found that through a dialogic process they have learned about deliberative democracy processes within both the University and in running deliberations with citizens concerned with economic change in river valleys and so on. Through those dialogic and deliberate processes they can bring people to a shade understanding that doesn’t mean a consensus, but more of an accommodation that includes a set of shared questions with which they could proceed. “Since that original process we have done several community processes. A couple [of initiatives] in climate change have pulled communities together to deliberate on what the issues are that they are facing around climate change. I don’t think we have yet had a project that successfully brings together the community perspectives with different disciplinary perspectives through dialogue. But that’s certainly something that we are working towards,” added Riedy.

The University of Technology, Sydney, was drawn to support the establishment and development of the institute because of the latter’s focus on sustainability and the prospect of generating research income for the University. A major source of this income has been through the Institute’s relationship with private industry. Current administration seems the work of the Institute as an exemplar for which the University should be striving. Notes Riedy, “I think there is still fundamental resistance to transdisciplinary approaches, but all of the rhetoric about research in Australia through funding bodies like the Australian research council is very supportive of transdisciplinary research.”

As in most transdisciplinary efforts in higher education, issues of faculty and researcher career paths are quite important. Traditional structures and functions for academic promotion are focused on discipline and not transdisciplinary work. This approach is something with which the University is still grappling. In this case, the Institute has considerable flexibility about promotion. But Chris Riedy will have to be approved by an academic review for promotion to Associate Professor. There are signs from the experience of one other faculty member that his and others’ progress may be successful. The University is in the process of re-examining career paths and promotion opportunities. As we have found in other universities, opportunities for publication in academic journals are no longer a problem.

In our conversation with Riedy it was clear that many of the axioms related to transdisciplinarity have meaning for him, despite his lack of familiarity with the work of CIRET. Riedy’s attention to integral theory and adult development approaches is a more certain source of inspiration for his work. He states,

“I use some of the developmental psychology thinking…We use three different perspectives from the egocentric to socio-centric to world-centric and try to think about how those different perspectives and developmental stages will play out in a policy situation. In my research and writing I do get more sophisticated about that by looking at how different developmental stages are playing out in policy debates, how to translate those to different levels and tapping into their motivations to act on climate change.”

Riedy holds the Post Graduate Program of the Institute to be highly important. States Riedy,

“It’s where we nurture transdisciplinary thinking. It’s our thinking lab for how transdisciplinary research can work in practice. We do annual retreats in our post graduate program where we bring together all of our post graduates and supervisors. We go away to an external location somewhere and stay overnight. We have some very intense and focused conversations about questions like what is transdisciplinary research, what is sustainability, and what is our role as researchers in creating change?

“Those conversations have been critical in developing a shared understanding. That’s been our process for eight years now in which we come up with a shared language across our different researchers about all of the things that we work on. They then go on to very different content to their research. Without that process we certainly wouldn’t be as far advanced in our thinking about what we do and being able to articulate what transdisciplinary research actually is for us. That kind of process is really important for an organization that’s trying to grapple with transdisciplinary research.”

The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney is a prime example of both the challenges and the successes of transdisciplinary approaches in higher education.

About the Authors

Professor Sue LT McGregor, PhD is a Canadian home economist and Doctoral Program Coordinator in the Faculty of Education, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Prior to that, she was a member of the Human Ecology Department for 15 years. Sue’s work explores and pushes the boundaries of consumer studies and home economics philosophy and leadership, especially from transdisciplinary, transformative, new sciences, and moral imperatives. In 2010, she was appointed Docent in Home Econom- ics at the University of Helsinki. She is a member of the IFHE Research Committee, a Kappa Omicron Nu Research Fellow, a Sustainable Frontier Research Associate, and a long-time Board member of the International Journal of Consumer Studies. She has delivered over 35 keynotes/invited talks in 10 countries, has over 120 peer-reviewed publications, 11 book chapters, and six monographs. She published Transformative Practice (2006) and her new book, Consumer Moral Leadership, was released in May 2010 (Sense Publishers). She received the 2009 TOPACE international award for her work on transdisciplinary consumer/citizenship education.  She is the Principal Consultant for The McGregor Consulting Group (founded in 1991). http://www.consult Email:

Russ Volckmann
, PhD, is Publisher and Editor of Integral Leadership Review and Integral Publishers, LLC.


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